My Friend Bill
by Dennis Wayne Smith
Is this a horror story? I rather not use that word because it involves one of my best friends. Let’s just say extremely unsettling. It is a true story, believe what you will.
I’m up early, as usual, after one of “those” dreams I’ve had so many of over the years. The same dream. Me talking to my best friend, Bill, close to the bow of our ship, the USS Henry County (nicknamed “The Hawk”). The same conversation over and over.
I have been reluctant to tell my story. Back then I didn’t dare tell it for fear of being medically discharged from the Navy for being a “nut- job” and for years afterwards because of my work in security which sometimes brought me into contact with the government. But now retired and a disabled veteran, what difference does it make? Maybe some therapy for me by getting it out and talking about it? Maybe and maybe not. It’s worth a try.
I joined the Navy in Hammond, Indiana in 1960. After Boot Camp in San Diego I was assigned to The USS HENRY COUNTY, a Landing Ship Tank assigned to Amphibious Forces . Our job was to carry troops and their tanks. Hit the beach, open up the huge bow doors and they would roll off ashore and we would pull off and head back to sea. We had a crew of 192 men including officers. We also had a flat bottom which meant we bounced and wallowed a lot to wherever we were going. After going onboard and getting settled in I was assigned to the engineering department. I would be working as a boiler technician. I started out as a Fireman Apprentice and then Fireman and was fairly soon promoted to Boiler Technician 3rd class and was then put in charge of the Boiler Room.
The day after I boarded the Hawk many of the crew members were coming to me and introducing themselves and telling me where they were from. One of the guys was Bill Baylor, a tall and lanky, dark haired sailor from Hershey, Pennsylvania. We hit it off immediately and became best buddies. Bill had come aboard only 3 weeks before I had.At the end of 1961 Russia resumed nuclear weapons testing ordered by Khrushchev. In early 1962 President John Kennedy announced we would do the same to answer the threat. The Henry County was selected to be one of the ships participating in the tests. We steamed out of Long Beach on July 12, 1962 headed for Pearl harbor, Hawaii where we would re-supply food, fuel and fresh water. From there we would steam to what was termed the “Johnston/Christmas Island Danger Zone” to participate in the tests designated “Operation Dominic”. The base we would operate from would be Johnston Island which was 823 nautical miles SSW of Hawaii.
After 9 days at sea we sighted Diamond Head lying off our starboard side. We entered the channel that would lead us to the Pearl Harbor Naval Base where we would tie up.
The next night after berthing at a pier a sailor they called Suds, who was a shipfitter (welder) and Bill and I hit the beach. We stopped at a little bar out on Waikiki that advertised “Live Entertainment”. We found a table over in a corner and ordered beer. We talked about going to the Johnston/Christmas Island Danger Zone for these nuclear tests. Suds had known a couple of guys who were on Bikini back in 1958 for tests. One was now dead and one was dying.
“It’s not a good thing guys. Not good at all. We will, more or less, be guinea pigs. I just don’t want to be one of the poor guys who has to go topside to take radiation readings after they drop one of those bastards. I want my ass to be deep, deep below decks.”
The conversation changed. Bill and Suds went into a discussion about a man named Shelley, a name I vaguely remembered from high school literature class. Suds said Shelley had a fascination with death. “Just read his ‘Queen Mab’ and you’ll see what I mean.” Bill said he had read it and it was one of his favorites. Bill said “death has a beauty of its own and, in fact, may be the most beautiful part of life.”
I was a little surprised when Suds said, “I’ve heard you write a little poetry” and Bill said, “I dabble at it. It’s not very good but I enjoy it.”At muster the next morning it was announced that three men had been chosen to attend radiology school for five days. I was one of them. The class was taught by a chief warrant officer who claimed to have a degree in physics. We were each issued a numbered Mueller-Geiger counter. We were instructed in calibrating the instruments and learned about alpha and beta particles and gamma rays. We were trained in “wash down” procedures and the “base surge.” This was a huge wave that would slap the side of a ship causing it to list severely on the opposite side.
Three days after the classes ended we pulled away from our pier and headed down the channel and to the sea on our way to Johnston Island.
There seemed to be an unnatural stillness about the base as the Hawk steamed slowly up the channel headed for the open sea. It was still dark with a faint light to the east. No other vessels were moving in either direction. I was alone on the fantail with my thoughts and a cigarette. Maybe it would all work out. I threw my cigarette overboard and headed below decks.
The farther we steamed southwest the more reality seemed to become suspended. Even the sea looked different. Darker. No phosphorus streaks brightened the wake behind the Hawk. Stars were becoming rare. It was impossible to tell where the sky ended and the sea started. There was no horizon. A black dome seemed to have been placed over the sea where the Hawk was steaming. Even breathing was difficult. On our third night of steaming, it seemed that every man not on watch was topside. The old salts who had been at sea for years had bewildered looks on their faces. Old Doc Bailey, a Chief Corpsman, shook his head. “These latitudes are not meant for men. This is Satan’s playground. Satan and his demons.”
Just as Doc finished his sentence the southern sky flashed a bright white light. Brighter than any sun. Then it turned a greenish hue and then it was gone. Somebody said, “What in God’s Name?”
Doc said, “That was a nuclear air burst. And we haven’t even reached our destination yet, where we’re going to see the bastards up close for real.” A light rain started to fall. We all headed below decks.
At 0500 hours on the third day we began approaching Johnston Island which was really not an island but just an atoll.
We anchored 1000 yards out from the break-wall that had been built around the atoll. Standing on the main deck you could see the sea on the other side. There was a short runway running the length of the atoll. Men and equipment were moving about.
Mr. Lingan, the Engineering Officer, issued dosimeters — small, black round objects that would hang from a cord around our necks. We were told these would be “read” from time to time to detect how many roentgens we were being exposed to. They never were. The “uniform of the day” would be t-shirts and dungaree pants because of the heat.
Bill, Howard Sayers and I were seated on the deck just inside the port hatch. We were wearing asbestos fire-fighting suits. Sweat was pouring from our bodies inside the suits. The only part not made of asbestos was the plexiglass in front of our eyes to see through. Howard muttered something about us looking like creatures from a B-grade science fiction movie. My body was itching. My face was itching. There was no way to scratch. Howard said he was having trouble breathing. We each were holding our Mueller-Geiger counters. Johnston Island was radioing messages that were being piped throughout the ship. One phrase was repeated over and over.
“APRIL WEATHER - APRIL WEATHER - APRIL WEATHER”.
We had no idea what it meant.
We knew a B-52 had left Hickam headed our way with a payload. It would be a multi-megaton nuclear bomb, detonated at a certain altitude for the “rainbow effect”. These drops were designated “air-bursts”. We had no idea where the Hawk’s position would be in relation to this drop. The damage control teams were seated in the mess hall below us. The rest of the crew were at their General Quarters stations. The countdown was blared throughout the ship.
“D - MINUS TEN MINUTES”
We three looked at each other. Howard shrugged - that was all he knew to do.
“D -MINUS TWENTY SECONDS ... ...19...18...17...16...15....14...13... 12...11...10...9...8...7...6...5...4...3...2...1”
The overhead lights blinked off and on. I could hear the engines changing speeds trying to maintain some sort of station. The engines shut down. There was silence. The speakers blared. “Brace for base surge.” We had been warned about the “base surge” in radiology school. “Ten seconds to base surge - 9...8...7...6...5...4...3...2...1...”
It was like a giant’s hand had slapped the side of the Hawk. I was thrown against the bulkhead behind me. Bill’s head slammed into the bulkhead behind him. Howard hung on to a rung to keep from being thrown down the ladder to the next deck. The Hawk took a 20 degree list to starboard and then bobbed back up on an even keel.
On the deck under us we could hear the damage control parties.
“What the hell!”
“Mary, Mother of God.”
The ship’s speakers crackled, “damage control teams to port and starboard shaft alleys for damage inspection. Report to CIC. Radiology team lay topside.”
That was us. We got the hatch undogged and stepped outside. The heat was worse than inside. Daylight was just breaking. The sky on the southern horizon was unnaturally white with a greenish hue. It was like being on another planet, looking at an alien sky.
Copyright © 2017 by
Dennis Wayne Smith
edited by Edward Ahern